Does democracy stop at the doorstep of the women’s hostel?
This appeal comes to us via MAYA JOHN
Since January of 2012, residents of Delhi University’s largest postgraduate women’s hostel, University Hostel for Women (UHW) have been waging a battle against outright suppression of their democratic rights by, both, their hostel authorities and the University’s Proctorial Committee. Since the hostel’s Chairperson is also the Proctor of the University, the Proctorial Committee has been intervening in the matter, not as a neutral party, but in complete connivance with the hostel authorities. There are two issues which are central to the ongoing struggle of the women students, namely, the imposition of a union constitution by the authorities, and the existence of archaic and conservative rules in the hostel.
In the process of their struggle, the women hostellers have been individually victimized to a ridiculous extent by the hostel Provost, Professor Ashum Gupta and the Warden, Dr. Tanuja Agarwala. The Warden and Provost have been sending letters to departments, making misleading phone calls to parents, denying extension of stay to M.Phil researchers in the hostel, verbally threatening their MA students that they will be given less marks for projects and assignments if they continue to support the struggle, etc. As a result, the campaign of the women hostellers has also been geared towards fighting rampant victimization.
Our struggle began when on 22 January, 2012 a six page document was pasted on various notice boards inside the hostel. The document was a copy of the Hostel Union Constitution drafted by the authorities in consultation with the hostel’s Managing Committee. While such a crucial piece of document can only be put into force after being passed by a two third majority of the hostel residents, who are the actual constituents of the union, no such procedure was followed in our hostel. To make matters worse, the hostel authorities tried to hold this year’s hostel union election on the basis of this imposed Constitution. While the authorities claim that they are implementing procedures followed during other student elections of Delhi University (such as DUSU, etc.), the structure of the Hostel Union Constitution reveals something very different. For example, the Constitution drafted by the authorities allows for the outgoing union president to continue on the new hostel union as an ex-officio member! Similarly, before the residents began challenging the authorities, the newly announced election criteria consisted of stipulations which seriously prevented the formation of a strong, independent students’ union. The new election criteria were an unhealthy combination of the stringent Lyngdoh committee stipulations, as well as certain disqualification criteria formulated by the authorities themselves.
A “valid” candidature was, hence, ascertained according to the Lyngdoh recommendations on age and attendance to a course, as well as the system of memos (i.e. the issuing of warning letters for the smallest breach of hostel rules—most of these rules being highly unpopular and contested). The receipt of 5 such memos was arbitrarily made a criterion for disqualification. It is only because the women students united to fight this imposition of a hostel union constitution that certain non-Lyngdoh election stipulations (like disqualification on the basis of memos issued and number of years of residence in the hostel, etc.) were taken back by the authorities. Unsatisfied with this partial victory, the women students have pursued their struggle because apart from the arbitrary introduction of Lyngdoh recommendations, the Constitution imposed by the authorities allows for extensive control of the hostel authorities on the union. Since the attempts of the authorities has been to minimize the autonomy and strength of the students’ union, the hostel residents collectively decided to submit a signature petition to the hostel Warden and Chairperson.
The second issue on which UHW residents have been campaigning is existing hostel rules. Most of the rules in force are those formulated way back when the hostel was started in 1970. The current residents in the hostel are challenging rules such as ‘no exit after 8:00pm’, submission of leave applications approved by Heads of Departments for more than one week’s absence from the hostel, the tedious procedure of gate pass and double-locking of rooms which does not exist in the men’s hostels, the limited number of late nights and nights out, closing off the canteen to visitors, etc. Many of these rules such as not being able to exit after 8pm are illogical, especially when we consider how the same authorities allow the residents entry up till 11:00pm under the late night provision. An archaic rule such as ‘no exit after 8pm’ prevents women students from stepping out for urgent work, or even something as simple as getting photocopies from the nearby market, Patel Chest.
However, apart from this, certain the rules (such as closing off the canteen to Miranda House and other college students and staff) have also worked towards making Chhatra Marg (where the hostel is situated) a more isolated place, and hence, unsafe. Certain other rules which are implemented solely in the women’s hostels, like the submission of leave applications approved by Heads of Departments for more than one week’s absence from the hostel, are being misused to such an extent that the women hostellers and department heads are unnecessarily burdened with additional paperwork. It is, in fact, shameful that adult women are being made to seek approval from their departments even for personal matters such their travel/vacation plans.
Of course, under the pressure of the ongoing struggle, the University has decided to implement, from the new academic session, certain changes in the rules prevalent in women’s hostels. However, since these adjustments were discussed and formalized without any consultation with women students, they continue to create hassles for the women hostellers. Indeed, apart from a few proposed changes, most of the rules stand the same. In fact, not only will tedious procedures like gate-pass, double locking of rooms and issuing of memos for the smallest breach of hostel rules persist, the University’s new administrative order also proposes a hostel fee hike. Understandably, the women hostellers continue to agitate and raise their democratic concerns.
Typically, the collective struggle of the students has been trivialized and demeaned in several ways. Students’ democratic methods like calling meetings, circulating signature petitions, etc. are constantly projected by the authorities as “illegal” activities that spread “disturbance” and “disharmony”. Basically, when we take the initiative to raise our opinions and discontent, our authorities only see “untoward” activity…OUR VOICE IS NOISE FOR THEM!
Furthermore, ever since the women hostellers have been voicing their democratic aspirations, the authorities have viciously gone after individual students in the bid to transform UHW residents into a captive mass which has no democratic voice. The logic behind the multiple techniques of victimization is the need for the hostel authorities to break the collective will of the students and to project their collective struggle as that of a few individuals. In order to break the collective will and efforts of the residents, the authorities have been threatening individual students to withdraw from the struggle, and have tried to project the students’ legitimate struggle as a smear campaign pursued by one or two students who have some mysterious “agenda”. The techniques of victimization used unhesitatingly so far, include: (i) vicious character assassination, (ii) phone calls to parents and departments, (iii) accosting individuals on the stand they have taken and refusing to cooperate with them regarding the smallest of procedural work within the hostel, (iv) denying extension of stay to M.Phil researchers, (v) bombarding the more active students with show cause notices on every alternate day, etc.
For many of us these victimization techniques are equivalent to the techniques embraced by the management of private companies seeking to break the collective voice of their employees. Considering our hostel Warden is a faculty member of the Faculty of Management Studies (FMS), it comes as no surprise to us that typical labour management formulas are being applied on us students. Haranguing individuals, involving the families of the protesters, threatening individuals with a series of show cause notices, applying multiple pressure on individuals by involving a not-so-neutral third party (in our case, the Proctor’s office, and in the case of workers, the Labour Office), etc. are very similar to the methods used by factory managers who seek to crush the collective voice of their employees. Using such labour management methods, the hostel authorities went out of their way to expose their unethical and undemocratic nature on two particular occasions. One such occasion was on 14th February when a large number of women hostellers boycotted dinner in protest. Rather than being concerned about the condition of the residents boycotting dinner, the hostel authorities ‘rewarded’ those who refused to support the campaign with an extra lavish dinner, and spent the entire day calling individual students to the office in order to force them to withdraw their support for the boycott.
The second occasion on which typical labour management techniques were unleashed on the hostel residents was on the 13th of March. On this day, members of the hostel’s Managing Committee, two Deputy Proctors, the Warden, Provost and Resident Tutor huddled into office to hold a Managing Committee meeting, as promised in writing. Ironically, rather than allowing the students to select and send their representatives to the meeting, the hostel Warden handpicked two students to represent the students’ point of view in the meeting called to ‘resolve’ the issues raised by the residents. As expected these students’ ‘representatives’ were not the more vocal of students, and were forced to compromise as they were outnumbered in the Managing Committee meeting, and were, in fact, locked into the office area during the course of the meeting. Disrespect for amicable dialogue and the strong desire to create a docile mass of women students are clearly reflected in such cases.
As the situation stands, individual victimization continues on a daily basis. For example, despite verbal assurances given by the Dean of Colleges, Prof. Pachauri, on the 16th of March, the hostel Provost has continued to contact supervisors and Heads of Departments. The hostel authorities also released a list on the 19th of March of M.Phil researchers who will not be provided an extension of stay, despite the precedent being that the hostel provides such extension in strongly recommended cases. The hostel authorities continue to run UHW as if it were their personal fiefdom. There really seems to be no way to check their authoritarian, undemocratic and unethical practices, unless the larger Delhi University community extends support to the women students.
WE, HENCE, APPEAL TO ALL CONCERNED UNIVERSITY MEMBERS AND ALUMNI OF UNIVERSITY HOSTEL FOR WOMEN (UHW) TO STAND WITH THE DEMOCRATIC ASPIRATIONS OF THE WOMEN STUDENTS, AND TO HELP PREVENT DELHI UNIVERSITY’S AUTHORITIES FROM REDUCING STUDENTS TO A VOICELESS, DOCILE MASS. In the larger context of the backlash against all democratic voices in this University, the ongoing struggle of women’s students emerges as a litmus test for democracy— do we as a University community want to create docile University youth, or right-bearing, politically conscious University youth?
Your contribution to this democratic struggle could consist of the following:
- Writing letters to the University’s Vice Chancellor that press for the prevention of individual victimization in its myriad forms, and for an amicable resolution to the issues raised by the students;
- Writing letters to the University’s Vice Chancellor and Dean of Colleges that press for the removal of the hostel Provost and Warden since the two continue to derail a healthy dialogue process by victimizing individual students;
- Writing letters to the media which highlight the sheer lack of tolerance for the democratic issues raised by the women students like the right to draft, amend and ratify their union constitution;
- Discussion with colleagues and other faculty members so as to create a public opinion against how women’s hostels are being run according to the diktats of an authoritarian and conservative set of DU faculty members;
- Build students’ resistance against de-unionization and conservative rules, as in UHW, in other DU hostels as well.
Issued by Residents of University Hostel for Women (UHW)
COORDINATION COMMITTEE FOR WOMEN’S HOSTELS IN DELHI UNIVERSITY Contact: 9350272637 (Maya), 9818900179 (Zainab)